(This is chapter nine of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I spent a few weekends during the late winter and early spring of 1995 running around the borough of Queens, New York taking pictures, most often with my three kids in tow. Daniel and Elizabeth loved to go on random car adventures, little Abigail got strapped into the car seat and had no choice, and we usually ended up some place cool like the Lemon Ice King of Corona or the famous “Coming To America” Wendy’s on Queens Boulevard by the end of the night. I didn’t know exactly what I was taking pictures for, but I had some vague idea about exploring the concept of the Internet as a virtual city by writing online about my real city, figuring this would somehow make sense to readers. Or else I just enjoyed driving aimlessly around Queens with my kids and getting lemon ices. I’m not sure exactly which it was.
I originally planned to call my second project “Queensboro Haikus”, but it didn’t come together until I decided to arrange the work as a 1960s folk-rock record album, with a Side One and a Side Two, five prose pieces on each side complementing and segueing into each other, and to call it “Queensboro Ballads”. I scanned some commercial art from an old Bob Dylan album and asked my father and stepmother (the best photographer I knew at the time) to take a picture of me playing guitar in front of the Globe in Flushing Meadows Park. I then spent about twenty hours working on this graphic until I finally got it right.
In April 1995, while I was job-hunting and trying to figure out where my career was going, I ran across a MacUser article about the web that urged readers to “grab your bongos and check out Literary Kicks, a tribute to Whitman’s spiritual heirs, the Beats”. It was my first mention in a magazine, and (very naively, I now realize) I was surprised that nobody at the magazine had notified me about this. Nothing I’d done before in my life had never been written about, and I grappled with the existential meaning of this new development. And what if I hadn’t glanced at the magazine, I wondered?
So I now began regularly scanning general interest and computer magazines at newsstands, checking for articles about the web that might mention Literary Kicks, which seems like a ridiculous thing to do, except that I kept scoring. The web was hot, hot, hot in early 1995 — entire new magazines like Michael Wolff’s NetGuide and the UK-based .Net Magazine were launching at a rapid pace — and there must not have been many interesting sites to write about, because Literary Kicks got lots of attention. I almost fell over, for instance, when PC Computing listed the 101 Best Sites on the Internet and named LitKicks as #1. The site appeared in an April 1995 Chicago Tribune Magazine article about “Cyber Punks” (“Yesterday’s geeks are today’s gurus. Meet the high priests of the new world”), which made my life sound more exciting than it actually was.
Since I had abandoned my frustrating attempt to publish a novel with the help of a literary agent about four years before, I was particularly pleased to show up in a Calvin Reid column in Publishers Weekly on May 15 1995:
… Levi Asher, a writer and webmaster when he isn’t working as a consultant on Wall Street, has erected a web site dedicated to his own enduring fascination with Beat Generation writers.
This made me feel like I was sneaking into the publishing biz through a back door (and with a different name). I wasn’t happy, though, to be described as having an enduring fascination with Beat writers. Actually, my enduring fascination was with the web format, and the Beat writers were just the first topic I chose to write about. I hoped my upcoming “Queensboro Ballads” project would help shake the bongo drums off my “image” (in fact, it didn’t, and still today, fourteen years later, I find myself often referred to as the web’s “Beat Generation” guy).
What I didn’t know was that the Beat Generation itself, dormant all these years, was about to have an improbable renaissance. It’s impossible to identify exactly when this began, but the well-publicized announcement in October 1994 that the great film director Francis Ford Coppola was going to film Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was probably one of the main catalysts. As a Godfather fan (though not a big fan of much anything Coppola had done since Apocalypse Now) I was ambivalent but excited, and I covered the developing news on a new section of Literary Kicks called “Beat News” (the name, admittedly, didn’t help my identity problem, but it was a popular page).
Over a decade later, I jokingly referred to “Beat News” as the very first literary blog. In fact, it wasn’t, because even though I got a few things right — the always snarky tone, the dated entries scrolling down the page — I missed two major characteristics of the blog form. First, I didn’t put the updates on the site’s front page. Second, I only updated it about once a month. It never occurred to me that anybody would ever run a literary site and post updates every single day. What could they possibly find to say? Sometimes I am a very forward-thinking guy — other times, I miss things by a mile.
In early 1995 I spotted a surprising announcement in New York Magazine:
On February 4, some 3,000 lanky, scowling, smoking would-be Sal Paradises and Dean Moriartys will be hanging around Columbus Circle. No, they won’t be there for a Beat-poetry convention, but for an open casting call at Saint Paul the Apostle Auditorium. Francis Ford Coppola, who’s owned the movie rights to Jack Kerouac’s 1955 classic “On The Road” for nearly twenty years, has decided to move the project ahead …
On The Road was published in 1957, not 1955, but I decided to audition for the part of Sal Paradise anyway. I roped my Beat-fan sister Sharon into joining me and ended up writing a very fun LitKicks article about the experience. (I didn’t get the part, though I did get to shake Coppola’s big hand.)
As the year went on I began to notice more and more retro “Beat” references popping up around me. Kerouac appeared in a Gap ad, and in early June New York University ran a Beat Generation conference featuring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman and many, many others.
I was not pleased about this. The conference took place just as I was winding down my job at Sybase and getting ready to start at Time Warner, and I really wanted to use my two-weeks notice to spend time with the family, read some books (not Beat books) and hang around at home. I also didn’t like the idea of an academic Beat conference, and I didn’t see anything Beat about a $140 “registration fee” . I decided to boycott the conference and keep my money.
I was then very happy when Rob Hardin, claiming to be a member of an East Village literary prankster group called the Unbearables, emailed to tell me that the Unbearables were going to protest the Beat conference on the streets of Greenwich Village. They apparently felt the same way I did about it, and put on an evening of great anti-Beat-hype entertainment at a Tribeca bookstore called Biblio’s. There were at least forty Unbearables there, led by a guy named Ron Kolm who dressed up as Mama Kerouac for some very funny skits. I sat at a table with my favorite Kerouac biographer Ann Charters and her husband, an important figure in the early Delta Blues music recording scene named Sam Charters, and enjoyed chatting with them both.
There was a second bit of street theater going on at the same time as the Unbearables show. Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan and the family of the late Stella (Sampas) Kerouac were embroiled in an ugly public battle over the ownership of the Kerouac estate, and Gerald Nicosia, author of the recent “scholarly” Jack Kerouac biography Memory Babe, had taken Jan Kerouac’s side against the Sampas family. He and Jan were busy staging their own anti-Beat establishment protest throughout this conference, but Gerald Nicosia was never as funny (or as dada) as Ron Kolm’s Unbearables, and his blunt rhetoric about the evils of the Sampas family didn’t make a very good impression on me. He was right that the Sampas family was treating Jan Kerouac unjustly, but he would have helped her more with a conciliatory approach, and I had a feeling he was more interested in Gerald Nicosia than in Jan Kerouac.
I tried to hang out with the Unbearables after the conference ended and all the scholarly Beatniks went back home to their big houses, but the chemistry was never as good after that first meeting, and I was very disappointed when I tried to get to know Ron Kolm — clearly a very smart and talented literary raconteur, and also the manager of a great bookstore on 57th Street called Coliseum Books — and found him copping an “attitude” with me because I was part of the whole Web fad that he seemed to consider as bad as the Beat fad. Or maybe he thought Literary Kicks was part of the Beat establishment, though certainly nobody in the Beat establishment had ever told me the secret handshake.
The Unbearables were right about the annoying Commercial Beat Renaissance, though. It would just go on getting more and more ridiculous, and I knew a line had been crossed when Literary Kicks got a mention in the October 1995 issue of Vogue Magazine. The cover blurb read “Berets and Bongos: The Beats Are Back”.
I’ve pondered many dreams and schemes in my life, and I’ve imagined all kinds of exciting turns of fate for myself, but I never once guessed that I would ever appear in Vogue Magazine. I didn’t even strike a pose.